Memoirs, privacy, fame, and family

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

When I was little, my family watched the Ed Sullivan Show every Sunday. I was mesmerized by the silly, shallow host, so devoid of emotion he appeared to be a cartoon version of himself. As I became more savvy about mass media, I realized that celebrities cultivate this empty look, so audiences don’t worry about what they think.

When I was around 40 years old I went to a therapist and asked him to help me understand myself. He said “tell me your story.” After years of individual sessions, I grew into a deeper version of myself, with a greater appreciation for how my mind works. But something was missing. Therapy had not shown me how to understand other people.

In the early 2000s, I discovered memoirs. From the first one, I allowed my imagination to enter the tangled mind of another person. Through the familiar structure of storytelling, I watched that character travel through some aspect of their lives, from discomfort and confusion towards some meaningful conclusion. The more I read, the more I learned. Book by book, my understanding of the people around me grew.

Memoirs are similar to traditional entertainment in that they take us out of ourselves. However, instead of replacing our thoughts with the silly and exaggerated personalities of celebrities, or the formulaic plots of thrillers and mysteries, memoirs open our hearts and minds to the full complement of human insights, frailty and courage.

Through memoir reading, I became a passionate student of human nature in all its depth and variety. And as I increasingly expanded my understanding of these authors, I realized that I was growing in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. Understanding myself was not an isolated project. By knowing others, I was coming to make better sense of myself.

Thanks to the Memoir Revolution, millions of us have entered into a complex multi-dimensional social conversation. By reading the accounts of people who have struggled for years to craft stories of their inner lives, we learn to see the ancient form of Story as a key to the wisdom and strength of the human experience. And in expanding our understanding of Story to include the story-of-self, we are beginning to discover the stories embedded in our own memories.

Is it possible to be both public and authentic?

In New York Times bestseller Glass Castle, television personality Jeannette Walls came out from behind the camera to reveal her gritty childhood, growing up in poverty and neglect. Instead of ruining her public image, she became even more famous for sharing her past.

TEDx speaker and activist Rachel Lloyd stands in front of audiences, but instead of inviting them to look at her, she invites them to look at prostitutes and pimps. Lloyd’s memoir Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale challenges us to trade in the superficial glimpses we see portrayed on television and movies, and take a closer look at this dark corner of human experience. In a surprising poignant twist, in exchange for our honest gaze, she offers us hope and compassion.

Brooke Shields steps out from behind the glamour of her public persona to provide insight into the disturbing, disappointing and very unattractive phenomenon of postpartum depression in her memoir Down Came the Rain.

Going public with your ordinary life

Unlike Ed Sullivan who became famous for pretending to be no-man, Frank McCourt became famous for being everyman. His memoir, Angela’s Ashes was one of the early books in the modern memoir movement that demonstrated that sharing private life can raise social awareness.

Of course only a few ordinary people will ever be catapulted into the fame of a Frank McCourt, but all of us can use our words and stories to tease apart our own intricate journeys and find our social and psychological truths. In fact, sometimes those deepest truths are the very ones that make publicity seem like the last thing in the universe we would ever want.

Take tragedy for example. No one wants to talk about it. So when we experience it, we often feel totally alone. This is the opposite of fame, living in a vacuum, where our pain is too real, and too complex to be shared with anyone.

Memoirs break through that isolation. Through memoirs both writer and reader can participate in an open, healing process. Carol Henderson, in her tragic memoir Losing Malcolm takes us behind the numb disbelief and anger, so poignant she wondered how she could ever go on. Lorraine Asch in Life Touches Life and Sukey Forbes in Angel in my Pocket reveal similar journeys. Robert and Linda Waxler, in Losing Jonathan share their journey of grief about losing their son to a drug overdose. All these authors share the courage they required to absorb despair and rise above it, and the courage to share these intimate vulnerable feelings.

But it’s scary to show the real me

When Ed Sullivan projected himself into my family’s living room each week, he always said “we have a really big show.” It has taken me decades to understand that while he was showing the talent of his guests, he had an almost fanatical determination to hide their inner worlds.

Most of us try to follow his example, getting along by dumbing down what we share about ourselves. This reluctance to express your messy inner world might make it easier to get along with people, but it makes it much harder to get along inside your own mind. How can you ever know yourself if you spend too much time pretending not to be you?

This concern about offending people comes up often in classes about memoir writing. Aspiring authors fear that exposing real feelings will offend people. By coincidence, when I was first learning about memoirs, two of the authors in my writing group had to reconcile the conflict between truth and loyalty to their family.

R. Foster Winans, my first memoir teacher, told about his own struggle not to upset his mother while he was still revising his memoir Trading Secrets about insider trading. And Linda Wisniewski, a member in my first critique group, had to overcome loyalty to her family in order to publish her memoir Off Kilter about her battle for self esteem.

For a much more radical, and public version of revealing family secrets, consider Tara Westover, the author of the NY Times bestseller Educated. Her family tried to convince her that her own memories of childhood were false. She struggled in the deepest, darkest regions of her heart to fight against the tide of their threats and the undermining, crazy feeling that her own story would be hated and rejected by her family.

But if she couldn’t tell her story, they still owned her truth. Westover went on to earn a doctorate in History at Cambridge University. Her dissertation was about the conflict between loyalty to the family versus loyalty to one’s self. In the end, she found the strength to write her own story.

Most of us don’t need to go to that extreme. By banding together with a group of fellow writers, we begin to pull together our healing story to the best of our understanding. By constructing our story, in our words, we gain authorial control over our own personhood.

To advance your own memoir writing journey, join me and up to 8 aspiring memoir writers next month at our online class and group coaching at Memoir University. Take the journey from 2018 into 2019 by making progress on your healing story. For more information, click here: Write Your Healing Memoir. Starts Dec 6

Notes
For brief descriptions and links to other posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

If this memoir author is famous, maybe you are too

by Jerry Waxler

This is the second part of my essay about Dawn Novotny’s memoir, “Ragdoll Redeemed: Living in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe.”  Click here to read part one

Who is this person and why should I care?

In memoir workshops and talks, people often ask me “Why would anyone care about my life?” My answer has two parts.

One: By crafting the story you will begin to understand the answer to your own question. As you write, you delve deeper into your own journey. You learn how the parts fit together, and attempt to develop story-values that will make the journey worth reading. Writing a memoir is a fabulous creative exercise that can help you grow more self-aware, and wiser about the journey of your own life.

Two: People who read memoirs are curious about the journeys of the people around them. If they only wanted impeccable storycrafting, they could choose from the vast selection of novels whose authors can invent whatever they want. Instead, we reach for memoirs because of our passion for actual human experience. I have read hundreds of memoirs because I am fascinated by the stories of real people. Write your memoir for readers like me.

If she is famous, maybe you are too

Before the twenty-first century, most memoirs were about celebrities. Famous people are fun to read about because it feels like we’re learning about old friends. This is one reason I read “Ragdoll Redeemed: Living in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe.” Novotny’s first husband, Joe Junior, was the son of the baseball giant, Joe Dimaggio. Joe Junior’s step-mom was Marilyn Monroe. By reading about Novotny’s life, I thought I could learn the background of these famous people.

But Novotny was not famous herself and neither was her husband. She was famous twice removed. The presence of her memoir on my book shelf points to a fascinating trend in the twenty-first century. The very notion of “fame” is changing. Through the internet we all know people who know people. Like the old game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, the internet age has ushered in the six degrees of every one of us. As we continue to grow increasingly connected to each other, fame in the internet age spreads out exponentially.

In fact, despite her connection with one of the most famous people in the world, I actually heard about Dawn Novotny through Linda Joy Myers, the president of the National Association of Memoir Writers, who wrote the foreword to the book. I was attracted to “Ragdoll Redeemed” because of my respect for Linda Joy’s energetic work with memoir writers, and her belief in the power of memoirs. And now that I am writing about the book, you have another way to know about Dawn Novotny. You know her because you heard about her from me.

When you ask yourself, “Why would anyone care about my life?” don’t ask it as a rhetorical question and assume the answer is “no one.” Switch it into an actual question, and then attempt to arrive at a specific, compelling answer.

First, when potential readers consider your book, they will be interested to learn that you have spent years plying the craft to create a story that contains dramatic tension and release. You will boil down the essence of your findings in the subtitle and blurb and readers will decide if they want to participate in your exploration. Part of their joy of reading your memoir will be to learn about your creative process. You are showing your readers how a writer can turn a lifetime into a book. Any memoir reader would be interested in that.

Second, out of all the people in the world, some of them are curious about you. Consider all the potential readers you are or will be connected with through various personal and internet groups. In addition, to internet acquaintances there are also people who want to know more about your situation. If you grew up in the Midwest, or are involved in Twelve Step programs, or love to quilt, people who had those experiences will relate to yours. For example, when Tracy Seeley wrote “My Ruby Slippers: The Road to Kansas and a Sense of Place” anyone from Kansas might wonder about her journey.

As we warm up to living in the internet age, we aspiring memoir writers are participating in this shift of attention from traditional fame to a new version that includes everyone. And Dawn Novotny’s life journey represents a perfect model for this transition. She started out as a rag doll, living as an object of other people’s dreams. Gradually she discovered that she is a real person. We’re doing the same thing as a culture, moving from the old-fashioned definition of fame in which we only cared about inaccessible stars on a pedestal, to a new definition that opens us up to authentic people. By writing a memoir we can share our authenticity with people who crave that sort of thing.

Notes

Dawn Novotny, RagDoll Redeemed: Growing up in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe

Dawn Novotny’s blog and home page

Another memoir by someone who grew up in the shadow of fame is by Erik Erikson’s daughter Sue Bloland. In her memoir “In the Shadow of Fame,” she wrote about the strange experience of growing up near her father who was a famous psychologist. Speaking of reenactment, she too became a therapist.

This is the second part of my essay about Dawn Novotny’s memoir, “Ragdoll Redeemed: Living in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe.” Click here to read part three

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Tim Elhajj about Writing and Publishing His Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

This is the third and final part of my interview with Tim Elhajj, author of the memoir Dopefiend. In the first part of the interview, we discuss shame, self-acceptance, and anonymity. In the third part, we will talk about writing and publishing. In Part Two, we take a fresh look at writing about the Twelve Steps. In this part of the interview, Elhajj talks about writing the book and publishing it.

Jerry Waxler:  You published the book through a publisher. These days, the whole writing community is buzzing about the potential for self-publishing. Help me understand your decision. Why did you choose to go with a publisher? How long and hard was the journey to find an agent or editor?

Tim Elhajj: I wasn’t sure I wanted to self-publish my first book. I created a proposal that included a chapter-by-chapter synopsis and the first three chapters and then sent it around to a short list of publishers and agents. I targeted publishers and agents that had worked with stories similar to mine within the previous year. I’m glad I did it the way I did, but I wouldn’t be so averse to self-publishing for my next project. It’s really not that hard, especially if you have a background as a writer and are comfortable with the technical requirements of pulling the manuscript together.

Jerry Waxler:  Over my years of researching the publishing industry, I have developed various fantasies and fears. In one fantasy, a team of expert editors would transform my raw manuscript into a world class work of literature. In a second version of this fantasy, the publisher doesn’t edit it at all, leaving all my mistakes exposed to the world. In a third scenario, the editor seizes control over voice and pacing and completely distorts my message. So how does your actual experience fit these extreme examples?

Tim Elhajj: The publishing industry has some odd conventions. I had to learn to stand up for myself with what I wanted for the story. I had to do the job I imagine a good agent would do for a writer. Really had to advocate for myself, for what I wanted from my story. I feel like I did a pretty good job for a first time author with no agent. I got 99% of what I wanted. But I’ll tell you this-I wouldn’t work with a publisher again without an agent. I’d rather write, then deal with that end of the business. It’s exhausting work.

Jerry Waxler: You did a great job of telling an excellent story. How did you prepare for this task? I note that you are a technical writer and that you went to a liberal arts college, Hunter. With this diverse writing background, what was your learning curve like when you attempted to turn your life into a story? Was it hard to learn the memoir writing voice?

Tim Elhajj: My blog was a huge help finding a voice that I am comfortable with. I have a very modest readership, but it’s not about the hits or raw numbers. It’s about finding a way to get comfortable with the work, a way to put it out there.

Jerry Waxler: I love the sparseness of your writing style. With simple anecdotes and scenes, you are able to develop a complex, complete story. Out of all the twists and turns of your life, how did you manage to select just the scenes that worked?

Tim Elhajj: Most of the anecdotes in the book were ones that I tell in AA meetings or around the dinner table to entertain my kids. Telling a story doesn’t always work the same way as writing a story. You have to make certain adjustments for the page. The audience is potentially different and some things may need more explanation, or transitions to get it to all make sense, but it all came out of that one big insight that I discussed earlier, about my relationship to my son and the program. That was the key to the rest of the book.

Jerry Waxler: You introduce a walk-on character who is not really there. He is like an apparition, or hallucination of one of your old drug buddies, and serves as a grim reminder of the life you could have been stuck in. The technique added dramatic power. However, it created a slight disturbance in my reading mind. I murmured to myself, not in a bad way, “Wait, what is that? Is it a literary device? A hallucination?”

Using this visionary element opens the door to the memoir author’s fantasy world, which I think could provide additional rich material for a memoir. (William Manchester uses a similar device in his memoir “Goodbye Darkness” in which he is haunted by the demons of his past.)  What can you tell about your decision to use that particular character in the story?

Tim Elhajj: You’re speaking of Chopper Cassidy. I changed the name, but this character is modeled from the first young man I knew who had died of a drug overdose. I must have been about fifteen or sixteen at the time.

I wanted to give the reader a sense for the weight of my past indiscretions and poor choices. Most writers of recovery memoirs can just show what their active addiction was like, but I had a very specific structure in mind for the book, so I needed to do something different. I wanted something tangible and big. I had read and admired Shalom Auslander’s Foreskin’s Lament and he does something similar to give the reader a sense for the weight of his religious upbringing by Orthodox Jewish parents.

This is one of the parts of the book that I had to fight with the publisher to keep. I am so glad you liked it, and that you understood what I was trying to achieve. It is a little disconcerting to see something like this in memoir, but I feel like it’s okay to push boundaries. Take risks. Experiment.

Jerry Waxler: I first met you in an online critique group. You were submitting pieces of the memoir to the group. Apparently it helped you polish your work. Please tell us more about the value of the critiquing process in your development as a writer, and in the development of this particular book.

Tim Elhajj: I’ve really fallen into a comfortable groove with my writing group. What’s most beneficial to me is that act of looking at others work. I have to learned to quickly identify the one or two things that I think will most improve the work, so that I can respond to the group and keep my membership active. This has allowed me to develop a finer sense for evaluating and revising my own work. And, of course, I also benefit from the feedback I get from the others. I have the good fortune to have many fine writers-like yourself, Jerry!-looking and commenting on my work.

Jerry Waxler:  One problem with critique groups is that they generally only give feedback about short sections at a time. It’s harder to find readers who will review the whole book. How did you overcome that challenge? Did you have many readers? Were you part of a group? Anything else you can share about reviewing the book while you were writing it?

Tim Elhajj: I have my wife who reads my longer manuscripts and offers incredibly helpful reviews. Sometimes you really do need someone to look at the work in the context its meant to have as a final manuscript. But it’s also helpful to get buy in on scenes, synopsis, and big ideas. When a book goes from idea to actual chapters-when the writing takes off and starts to move to its own cadence-then I like to narrow my feedback to one or two people who have a sense for what I’m trying to achieve.

Jerry Waxler:  When I write or edit my memoir, my creative attention forces me to integrate forgotten or discarded parts, and so on. Over time, this introspective work has made me more confident about my life. How would you describe the impact that memoir writing has had on you? [an anecdote would be awesome]

Tim Elhajj: I would say my writing keeps me in my office until all hours of the night. It’s hard work, but I love it. Wouldn’t have it any other way. I am sort of a loner anyhow. If I weren’t writing, I might just be staring out the window, thinking. Much better to write it all down. Try to make an entertaining story. My writing helps me to connect with people-readers. It’s an important outlet that I wouldn’t have without the writing. I’d like to think I’d still be a thoughtful person, but my life would be a little poorer without the potential for readers.

Notes
Click here for Tim Elhajj’s home page
Click here for Dopefiend on Amazon
Click here to read eight lessons you can learn from Dopefiend

For brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Memoir Interview: A Fresh, Personal Look at Twelve Steps

by Jerry Waxler

This is the second part of my interview with memoir author Tim Elhajj about his memoir, “Dopefiend: A Father’s Journey from Addiction to Redemption,” in which he portrays his recovery from heroin addiction in the Twelve Step program. Dopefiend provides a fresh, authentic look at this subject, which has been written about in many other books. It’s a question that arises for many memoir writers: “How do I portray my own individual perspective on a topic that has already received wide coverage?”

In the first part of the interview, we discuss shame, self-acceptance, and anonymity. In the third part, we will talk about writing and publishing. In the third part of the interview, Elhajj talks about writing the book and publishing it.

Jerry Waxler: Dope Fiend is a wonderful insight into the Twelve Steps, for several reasons. Probably at the top of my list is your relationship with your sponsor. He seems to be like a guardian angel. I am fascinated by the great relationship you developed with him. The way I read this relationship, the man himself was somewhat distant and insc`-rutable. I guess that’s a good thing, because it wasn’t about him. His main act seemed to be to ask you if your actions matched your basic principles. Perfect.

I wonder if you could comment on the way you included your sponsor, who was clearly made a crucial contribution to your journey. What decisions did you make about portraying him? Did you feel you needed to protect him, or hide him, because of his privacy and anonymity? Any light you can shed on your portrayal of his character would be interesting.

Tim Elhajj: My sponsor was a huge factor in my success. I wanted to show the reader how that relationship worked for me, but I didn’t want to lose sight of the bigger story, the story about my relationship with my son. I think in some ways my relationship with my sponsor echoes the parental relationship I was trying to build with my son. My sponsor’s willingness to express his love for me is a nice foil for those first few hesitant steps I took reaching out to my son, offering him small praise or just the time required to pass a baseball back and forth. My sponsor was an important and necessary part of the story, but I also wanted him to be somewhat anonymous, to fall out of the story after his appearance on stage. This is what twelve step fellowships are about–part of the wonder of how these programs work is that people from all different walks are thrust together in common cause, recovery. It’s transitory by nature. To protect his privacy, I changed my sponsor’s name, as I did with most everyone’s name. Only my wife and I have our real names used in the book.

Jerry Waxler:  The Higher Power often presents a big obstacle for people who first try to embrace the Twelve Steps. And yet, it is a fundamental part of the program. In her memoir, “Lit’ Mary Karr spends a lot of time worrying about whether to accept a Higher Power. “Is there really a God? Am I really praying?” In your memoir, you did not express or seem to feel any reluctance about this aspect of the Twelve Steps, and if you fretted about it at all, it was so brief and mild, I missed it. Your acceptance of these principles turned the book, into a subtle, understated ode to spirituality.

That’s my perception. Tell me about your intentions. Did you intentionally downplay your internal debate about Higher Power, or did you simply absorb and accept that part of the teaching? During the creation of the memoir, what sort of decisions did you make about how to portray this aspect?

Tim Elhajj: I have always believed in God, but I have also always been somewhat cynical about the practical value of this belief. I am especially skeptical about religion. Spirituality, though, seems a bit different to me. At least, the type of spirituality I have learned by practicing the steps. If I can develop enough faith in myself, the courage to move forward despite my own fears–concrete ways to practice these and all the spiritual values embodied in the steps–then I am capable of making great changes in the way I live my life. To me, it’s all very practical. And, I would say, very spiritual, too.

Jerry Waxler:  I saw that you offer group discussion topics. What sorts of groups have you found interested in working with these questions?

Tim Elhajj: I think you are talking about the reading guide posts I’m publishing on the blog for Dopefiend. Each month, I write a short post that explores some aspect of the spiritual value assigned to one of the chapters or a meditation on the step associated with the value. I try to tie the action of the chapter into the value used in each of the chapter headings, as well as some thoughtful questions for the reader. I try not to add any spoilers, so feel free to read them over, even if you haven’t read the book.

I plan to do reading guide for all twelve chapters. I’m about to post the one for chapter four any day now. I hope they encourage people to buy the book, or at the very least consider the questions. I’d invite everyone to check it out: http://dopefiend.telhajj.com/category/reading-guide/

Notes: Other mentors in memoirs: Father Joe by Tony Hendra. Nic Sheff’s sponsor in Tweak was also revealing, but did not have the same depth of relationship.

Notes
Click here for Tim Elhajj’s home page
Click here for Dopefiend on Amazon
Click here to read eight lessons you can learn from Dopefiend

For brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Memoir Interview: Shame, Addiction and Anonymity

by Jerry Waxler

In a previous post, I reviewed eight lessons you can learn from the excellent memoir “Dopefiend: A Father’s Journey from Addiction to Redemption” by Tim Elhajj. In this interview, I asked him for more insight into the process of writing the book, and what it felt like to see his story come to life on the page. In the first part of the interview, we discuss shame, self-acceptance, and anonymity.

Jerry Waxler: Your book, Dopefiend hit my memoir buttons such as excellent scene based story building, moral dilemmas that led inexorably to character development, and the drama of ordinary life. Thank you for all the work you did to turn your life into a story and then sharing that story with me.

Which leads me to my first question. Now that you are a responsible adult, with an established career, how did it feel to write a memoir about yourself as a young man who didn’t have a clue about his responsibility to other people? Were you squirming with annoyance or disbelief at your younger self’s lack of preparation for life?

Tim Elhajj: Not really, no. And I’m not even sure why that is. Certainly my behavior as an addict was immoral and irresponsible. I’m not proud of the fact that my first marriage ended as a result of my out-of-control needs. Nor am I happy that my son grew up in a home that didn’t include me. Perhaps I am being too easy on myself, but I like to think that I’ve learned to accept my past for what it is: the unfortunate but all too common circumstances of heroin addiction.

One of my goals with the book was to offer a hopeful story for single parents who might find themselves in similar circumstances, coming into recovery separated from their children, or ostracized from their families. What I learned is that even if you don’t resume a relationship with your previous partner, you might still be able to hammer out a satisfying relationship with your child. But to make something like that work, it’s going to take a lot of forgiveness. While I can’t make someone else forgive me, a good place for me to start is with forgiving myself. If I can get that right, I stand a much better chance that others will naturally fall back into my life, if they are meant to be there. But it all starts with me and my own ability to get on with my life.

Jerry Waxler: Over the period during which you developed the memoir, how did your relationship to the protagonist (your younger self) evolve? Did you grow to like him, accept him, resent him…?

Tim Elhajj: The big awareness I had about myself and my life came with the idea for the book itself: I wanted to tell the story of my relationship with my son, using each of the spiritual values at the heart of twelve step programs. The events I describe at the end of the book actually happened about six years ago. I don’t want to give away the ending of the book, but these events caused me to reevaluate my whole experience in recovery, especially with regard to AA’s twelve steps and my relationship with my son. I realized that by practicing these principles, I had somehow achieved what I had always hoped for with my son, but could never figure out how to orchestrate on my own. With that awareness, I was able to map out the entire story of my recovery, as told through the prism of my relationship with my son. I remember getting really excited the more I thought about it. As if in having this awareness, I had found the secret key to decipher some aspect of my life. In some ways I had.

Jerry Waxler: I notice that you list your day job on your website. So without a pseudonym, that leaves you out in the open. Were you worried that revealing your past would upset your employer or coworkers?

Tim Elhajj: No, not really. I did mention Dopefiend to my manager a few weeks before it came out. He was supportive and I wasn’t surprised. I expected he would be. Prior to publishing the book, I had already “come out” in a few other stories I had published in various journals and newspapers. One of the first stories that I had published was in The New York Times, and it was about my relationship with my son, really a similar version of the story in Dopefiend, but much shorter and without any mention of me being an addict. Dan Jones, the editor who published the story for The New York Times, pointedly asked me about leaving that part out of the essay. I told him I wouldn’t do it. I didn’t want anyone to think badly about me. Mr. Jones, who is just a mensch of an editor, published my story without altering it. But then the more I thought about it, the more I realized: What the hell kind of essayist writes around being a recovering heroin addict, one of the most salient facts of his life? If I wanted to write memoir, I knew I’d have to come to terms with being open about who I am and the life I’ve led. And, really, that was the right choice for me. I don’t think every story I write needs to be about my recovery or my addiction, but evaluating one’s life openly and honestly, without shame or fear, is the right path for me. It’s like the advice Tobias Wolff wrote to Mary Karr as she set out to write the Liar’s Club. “Don’t be afraid of appearing angry, small-minded, obtuse, mean, immoral, amoral, calculating, or anything else,” Mr. Wolff wrote. “Take no care for your dignity.”

Jerry Waxler: You explore your profound relationship with the Twelve Step programs. Isn’t anonymity one of the principles of the Twelve Steps? Did you worry that you were violating that principle?

Tim Elhajj: Anonymity is one of the traditions of most every twelve step program. As far as the book goes, I was careful not to mention AA or any other fellowship by name in the book, so I think I did okay with the spirit of the tradition.

I am very interested in this question of anonymity and twelve step programs. I think it may have been helpful at some point, but I wonder if that point may have already passed. Twelve step meetings appear in television and movie dramas, even parodied in popular culture. I think people deserve a nonfiction perspective to go along with the fiction and satire. And not just a single person’s perspective either. I’d encourage others to share their stories and experiences as well. It’s really an interesting subculture and phenomena.

And, really, twelve step programs are only a single piece of the bigger picture of resources and therapies available for recovering people. I’d like to hear nonfiction stories from other people who have used different methods to find their way into recovery. No one should be afraid of the truth. The truth can’t hurt you.

In Part Two, we take a fresh look at writing about the Twelve Steps. In the third part of the interview, Elhajj talks about writing the book and publishing it.

Notes
Click here for Tim Elhajj’s home page
Click here for Dopefiend on Amazon
Click here to read eight lessons you can learn from Dopefiend

For brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Fear of publishing: Try these ten (more) tips to increase courage

by Jerry Waxler

Many writers are comfortable alone at their desk but nervous about going public. This anxiety can be used as fuel to motivate you to hone your skills and press towards goals. Or the same emotion can turn to fear, arousing demoralizing thoughts like “No one will like it,” and “Why bother?”

While much has been written about how to market your book, there is relatively little guidance for the emotional struggle. Because I have had to cope with my own social anxiety, I have been studying this issue for years, reading self-help books, and incorporating lessons from my formal training in counseling psychology, and trying the strategies myself. In addition, I have listened and learned from other writers who have struggled with their own variations on these challenges.

To unravel these negative reactions, I have assembled twenty tips that can help you break free of the restrictions place on you by shyness. Ten of these tips are listed below, and you can find an additional ten in part 1 of this article by clicking here

Shift your attention from judges to admirers

Many of us have a generalized fear that “they” won’t like me or “they” will judge me and my writing. These vague feelings can have power, until we think about them clearly. Ask yourself who are “they.” What if some people admire you and others don’t? Are you demanding that all 6 billion people on earth adore you? Anyway, why are you giving so much importance to the ones who won’t like you? In every audience there is a mix. Focus your energy on the people who like you. Take their compliments seriously. Write towards your admirers, not your detractors.

Laugh your way past rejection and keep going

To sell your book, you must convince an agent or editor to invest time and money in your work. Naturally some will say no, a response that will likely disappoint you. Use creative ways to inoculate yourself against rejection. For example, write a humorous story about how you opened your door one day to find an editor who hated your writing so much she came to plead with you never to write again. Brag about your rejections as badges of courage. Collect stories about famous writers who were rejected a hundred times. Instead of allowing rejection to derail your intention, approach publishing like a business. Line up your possible customers and keep looking.

Be kind to assertive people

Do you cringe when you see an ordinary person speaking out in public? If you hate assertive people you might be sacrificing your public voice at the altar of courtesy. Like the wallflower sitting on the sidelines, your refusal to be pushy allows everyone else to have their dance while you miss out. Life is a balance between pushy and shy, so be aware of where you have drawn the line. Challenge your own negative attitude about assertive people, and take into account the many benefits of becoming a more socially assertive person yourself.

Open your heart to sales people

We all know the stereotype of the crass, insincere salesperson who will say anything to manipulate you to buy. But like any stereotype, this impression ignores the nuances. Instead of feeling a generalized antagonism towards all selling, consider the fact that persuasion is a normal, healthy, and important part of life.

Flip your viewpoint. Instead of worrying about persuading them, look at the way they persuaded you. When you walk into a bookstore and weigh all the options, you are, in effect, the target of thousands of persuaders calling you from the shelves. Each one of those books has a blurb, a cover, and a position on the shelf, all aimed at convincing you to buy. When you like a book, you appreciate their effort. Their selling actually enriched your life. It was a mutually beneficial transaction. Allow yourself to perform this same service for your readers. By convincing readers and the gatekeepers who guard their door, you are actually seeking to serve readers with your story.

Overcome your hatred of shame

Shame is such a horrible feeling, naturally you want to avoid it. But instead of allowing shame to control you, take a closer look at the emotion itself. According to psychologist John Bradshaw, there is good shame and bad shame. Bad shame or self loathing results from child abuse and needs to be healed. On the other hand, good shame is healthy. Its purpose is to stop you from doing socially unacceptable things. If you feel this emotion, it means you are trying to do the right thing.

By overcoming your disgust with shame, you can explore aspects of yourself that you have been avoiding all these years. Under the stinky exterior, you will find that much of the shame resulted from your desire to be a good person. You will also discover opportunities for deep healing.

Heal from memories of harsh criticism

Many adults are ashamed of their writing because of the derision of a high school English teacher or two. Exorcise the ghosts of these childhood critics by writing a story about a teacher who criticized you and then went home to care for a sick child, or perhaps had a crush on you and didn’t want anyone to find out. Or take a more psychological approach and work through these traumatic memories with a therapist.

Throw off the remnants of the English Class system

Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady,” needed to enunciate precisely in order to gain admission to upper class society. Nowadays, we look on the British Class system as a quaint relic. However, many of us still fear that a wrong comma or a poorly chosen word will expose us as classless commoners.

This fear derives its strength from unconscious whispers that insinuate your writing will expose you as a worthless human being. When you look more carefully, you will realize that society no longer measures us by our proper use of the King’s English.

Learn to tell your story in clear, compelling, and entertaining language. Your writing voice needs to be authentic and unique. Through practice you will discover this voice, constantly improving but never “perfect.” When you are finally ready to publish a book, you can hire an editor to weed out any remaining errors that might detract from the reader’s enjoyment.

Focus on your own generosity

One of the best antidotes to shyness is to switch your focus from fear to generosity. Instead of worrying about your own feelings, apply all that energy to making readers feel good.

Constantly improve your writing skills

It would be crazy to stop writing because you fear your book won’t be interesting enough. The book can’t possibly be interesting until you make it so. To create your best story, improve your language arts, practice, and learn to edit. Over time, your product will improve, and when you and your band of critiquers are pleased with it, you will be able to imagine that other people will be pleased as well.

In addition to being an expert about your life, become an expert about your memoir

To increase your sense of authority about your memories, do additional fact checking. Verify dates or street names. Interview other characters, and become aware of their perspective. It’s good to know in advance about any disagreements they might have. When appropriate reconcile their information with yours, or agree to disagree. Look up  facts or read books about the period. The more you do your homework, the more authoritative you’ll feel when you present your information to others.

Notes
You can find an additional ten tips for overcoming shyness in part 1 of this article by clicking here

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

To learn more about my 200 page workbook about overcoming psychological blocks to writing, click here.

Check out the programs and resources at the National Association of Memoir Writers

Too shy to publish your memoir? Try these ten tips to reach towards strangers

by Jerry Waxler

Writing a memoir leads you inward, but to reach towards readers, you must turn in the other direction, exposing private material to strangers. What if they don’t like it? What if they don’t like you? Many memoir writers pull back at this threshold. Without forward momentum, even a small bump can become insurmountable.

Reasons for avoiding the public come in many voices, each one asserting a sense of urgency or even danger. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by these concerns, seek solutions. Remember that writing a memoir is a journey. You don’t need to solve every obstacle before you start. Just solve the ones that stop you.

Here is a list of ten suggestions to help you press past the obstacles. Once you have gained confidence, you will come to see your readers as supporters, and the only pressure you will feel is the desire to fulfill their curiosity and respond to their support.

For ten more tips, see part two of this article.

Screw your courage to the sticking place

Before you reach for readers, you might pull back and ask “Why bother?” If unanswered, this question will bog you down and make even small obstacles seem insurmountable. Counter it by writing a list of all the reasons you want to move forward. By focusing on your reasons, you will gain courage to climb the ramparts and charge into the public.

For example, many memoir writers enjoy the pleasure of self-expression. Finding readers takes that pleasure to the next level. Many want to share a lesson about life, offering inspiring and cautionary tales that can help others. And even from the first workshop or critique group, memoir writes discover that their story connects them with other people.

For more reasons, see this article “Ten Reasons Anyone Should Write a Memoir.”

I am nobody

Many aspiring memoir writers ask, “Why would anyone read about my life?” But they typically ask the question rhetorically, assuming that the correct answer is “nobody.” When you look for real answers, you will find many reasons why someone might want to read about your unique journey. By turning your life into a good story, you will give readers the gift of your presence. Like the other obstacles to writing, this is a good one to set aside in the beginning. Start writing and as your story develops you will gradually improve your understanding of your relationship to your future audience.

Accept stinky first drafts

You may be afraid your writing is “not good enough.” One way to overcome this negative impression of yourself is give yourself permission to write bad first drafts. Ernest Hemingway famously claimed his first drafts were crap. Eventually through editing and learning the craft, your writing will improve. Look at your first drafts as a humiliating step along a noble path.

Collaborate with other aspiring writers

Participate in a supportive writing group. Working with other writers helps overcome shyness by giving incremental exposure to helpful people who are traveling the same path you are.

Censor memories you’re not ready to reveal

If there are things about your life that you’re not sure you ever want to write about, keep your secrets. No one is forcing you to reveal everything. As the project proceeds, you can reevaluate your reticence later.

Call it fiction

If you fear you could never tell your secrets, write them as fiction. Hide something you did in Las Vegas by telling about it as if it happened to someone else in Los Angeles.

Write stories that are roadmaps to your future

If you are unable to imagine your future success as a writer, try writing a story about it. Imagine your first letter of acceptance, or jump even further and write about sitting on the deck of your yacht, typing your next bestseller.

Join Toastmasters

Toastmasters International is an inexpensive non-profit organization with local chapters all over the world, where people come together to help each other overcome their reluctance to speak in public. Even if you don’t intend to become a public speaker, this program will help you break through overwrought feelings of privacy and expand your mind to include more people. And if you ever fantasize about publishing a book, you will no longer be terrified by the interviews and book signings.

Persist along a gentle slope

To publish your first pieces, look for gentle places with easy thresholds. Your very first sharing might be in a memoir group. Later you may decide to publish a blog anonymously. As you become accustomed to these initial entry points, aim slightly higher, such as posting a signed article on an ezine. You will gradually reach higher elevations, without having to climb cliffs or leap across chasms.

Draw inspiration from the persistence of other authors

Every memoir you read has been written by someone who had to go through the same process. They started, learn, revealed themselves, and reached towards gatekeepers and readers. Now that you’ve enjoyed the fruits of their labor, consider emulating them, and passing your life story forward, adding another drop to the sea of culture.

For ten more tips, see part two of this article.

See also: “Afraid to write your memoir? Read this book!”

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Read banned memoirs: Criminal or Social Activist?

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

In the 60’s, I vigorously protested the Vietnam War, but like most Americans I thought the organization called the Weather Underground had gone too far. Without knowing many details, I associated them with violent, irrational extremism.

So I was surprised to hear that one of the founders of that organization was not only a free man. He was an acclaimed educator. I first heard about Bill Ayers during the 2008 presidential campaign when television ads implied that Ayers’ criticism of U.S. policy in Vietnam somehow tainted Barack Obama. The publicity intrigued me. I wanted to know more. After hearing an excellent radio interview with Bill Ayers, I decided to read his memoir Fugitive Days. Reading the book prodded me to review rusty old parts of my own beliefs.

When Ayers was a young man, his outrage against the war drove him to the brink of anarchy. In his memoir, Fugitive Days, he chronicles his violent thoughts and actions in almost poetic detail. Even after reading the memoir, it’s hard for me to decide if he was a hero who risked his life to save the world from the insanity of war, or a mad child, a criminal, bent on imposing his will on society. And therein lays the power of the memoir. It shows his world as it was, not as it ought to have been, allowing me to see for myself and ask my own questions. The description of life through his eyes provided a deeper understanding of the world than I could gain from sound bites and stereotypes.

Are young people idealistic or simple minded?

When I was young, adults taught me that people are supposed to be kind, generous, and empathetic. I desperately wanted to live in a world driven by these ideals. Too often, the difference between the world they preached and the one they actually offered made me angry. So I protested, trying to badger them into following their own principles. However, demanding change turned out to be far more complex than I first had hoped. After I participated in my first riot, I realized I was contributing to the very chaos that I wanted to stop.

The protest movement became increasingly strident at my alma mater, University of Wisconsin in Madison, until a climax in the1970 bombing of the Army Math Research Center. At 3 AM, when the bombers expected the building to be empty, a young physics researcher unrelated to the Army or the war was killed by the blast, exposing the dark side of extreme protest. More disturbing still, moral outrage against government policies can be used to justify all sorts of violent protest. For example, the Oklahoma City bombers claimed they were obeying higher principles, a justification that comes all too close to the reasoning of the Weather Underground.

According to Ayers, his group never took part in an action that resulted in a death, so the book does not justify murder. In fact, the book does very little justifying at all. Rather than analyzing his actions, or even looking back at them with the hindsight of an older man, Ayers offers an immersion experience in that period. Just as you wouldn’t expect to see cell phones in a movie about the Vietnam War, Ayers also tries to keep his thoughts appropriate for a young man during the height of the Vietnam war protests.

Feminism was still in the future

In Bill Ayers’ time the feminist movement had not yet been born, so during his story, men were freely using women and justifying it with all sorts of theoretical excuses. Women were starting to complain, and in a rare nod to the future development of the feminist movement, Ayers hints at the tensions coming to the surface.

Structure is interesting: In Medias Res
The organizational structure of the book is interesting. The opening scene pulls me in with a bang. Ayers and his cronies are on the run, and they hear about the death of a comrade, letting me know they are all in mortal danger. This technique of “in medias res,” or starting in the midst of the action, is as old as storytelling itself. Once the initial scene pulls us in, he backs up and starts from the beginning. Then gradually the story moves closer to the tragedy, and then keeps going, to his fugitive life, and on to completion.

Is shame supposed to be hidden?

In the memoir, “This Boy’s Life” Tobias Wolff writes about some really bad decisions from his youth, like throwing eggs at the driver of a convertible car and stealing stuff from his step-dad. He does not apologize or justify. He simply describes. When I first read “This Boy’s Life,” I was shocked that he would be willing to talk about these obnoxious behaviors. How does that work? I hated remembering when I did shameful things like shoplifting. Uck. It feels horrible to admit that I ever did such a thing. Similarly Ayers reports many behaviors that one would hope one’s teenage son or daughter is not doing. However, now that I have been reading memoirs for a while, I am no longer so shocked.

My more tolerant and expansive understanding of how to remember bad choices came during a lecture by John Bradshaw, the brilliant author of a number of books about healing. In the lecture, Bradshaw explained that there are two kinds of shame. Of course I knew about “bad shame.” The new information came from his description of “good shame,” a beautiful and redeeming concept I had never considered.  Good shame serves a positive purpose. When you’re ashamed of something you’ve done, it’s your mind attempting to restore you to obey your own rules. So shame is a good thing, enforcing people to do their best. When people are “shameless” they can be rude or deceive each other without remorse. The absence of shame is the real anti-social condition.

Actually, not only is Ayers not ashamed of his actions. He even flips it upside down, and points a sense of shame back at the rest of society. He doesn’t feel shame for having protested the war. He feels shame for having participated in a country that was waging the war, and for example, dropping Napalm on babies. Wow! That fascinating twist makes me think long and hard about my own role as a citizen in a country that does a variety of things I wish they would do differently.

On every page, Ayers awakened memories of my own angst in the sixties. His experience stretched me to review my attitude towards social responsibility, and then, as I followed his trajectory, watched the terrifying consequences of his extreme position. It was an amazingly thought provoking and successful book.

NOTES

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

Let Your Memoir Take You to the Fourth Step

by Jerry Waxler

The first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting I attended was held in the basement of a church. I sat in my car until the meeting was about to start and then slipped in, hoping no one would notice. It wasn’t my idea to be there. The professor of my addictions counseling class at Villanova had assigned us the task of attending.

The speaker told her story of descending into the pit of alcoholism, losing her marriage, home, and children, and finally selling her body. Thanks to the Twelve Steps, she had been able to pull herself together. When I left the meeting that night, in addition to a renewed appreciation for the havoc that can be wreaked by substances, I also had witnessed one of our culture’s great institutions, dedicated to helping people in desperate situations build up their self-esteem and life-skills.

While I am not addicted to substances, there have been many times in my life when I felt out of control, like my years struggling with loneliness and depression, or coming to terms with the barrage of news about war, divisive politics, poverty, and disease. While I have a variety of tools to help me cope, occasionally I wish there was a Twelve Step meeting to overcome everyday feelings of being out of control.

Although I have not found an actual Twelve Step program for ordinary situations, I do see analogs that could serve some of the same purposes. The method of self-help pervading all civilizations since the beginning of history is the quest for support from a Higher Power. There are lots of meetings that can help us seek that transcending connecction. Another powerful offering of the Twelve Step programs are slogans, such as “give me the courage to change what I can and accept what I can’t” and “one day at a time.” All of us could benefit from uplifting phrases, because the things you say to yourself affect how you feel.

Now, as I study memoir writing, I believe I have stumbled upon another connection with the Twelve Steps. The Fourth Step says, “We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” The goal of taking this inventory is to replace vague sorrows of “having messed up,” with more detailed information. It’s an important exercise for addicts who, in their pressure to obtain the next buzz, overrode their conscience more often than they would like to remember.

However, addicts do not hold a monopoly on regrets. Everyone bumps against things they wish they hadn’t done. As long as unpleasant memories remain tucked away, there is no way to learn from them. The Fourth Step suggests you pry them out of hiding. Once they’re in the open, you can work with them consciously, discover the details, find the implications, and then integrate the past into the complete picture of who you are and how you got here. This self-knowledge strengthens your ability to move more confidently into the present and future, and opens channels of compassion and connection with the people in your life.

The Twelve Step Programs started from inspired revelation, a seed planted by people desperate to find something more powerful than their addiction. In the following half a century, tens of thousands of people harvested the results of that inspiration. And as each generation learns, they arm themselves to help the next. To rescue their fallen comrades from the cauldron of addiction, perhaps one of the most selfish tendencies of human nature, these people have discovered within themselves one of the generous tendencies of human nature – the desire to help each other overcome challenges.

Memoir writers don’t belong to an elaborate step-by-step system of guidance and mutual support. When we take our moral inventory, we do it hunkered down alone at our desk. It sounds isolated. However, memoir writers turn towards another powerful resource. Our mentors are those writers who have gone before us, placing their lives on paper and leaving it for us in books. Reading memoir after memoir we witness the story, discovering lessons not just about the author’s lifetime but about their willingness to write it. Following their lead, we arrange and rearrange our own conglomeration of memories, until we too arrive at that system known as Story, a system as old as civilization itself.

When we tell about our history, when we hurt people or they hurt us, or resented, or misunderstood, or all the thousands of interactions we have with people, storytelling goes beyond initial emotions. We expand our thinking, and more clearly see all the characters in our lives, who they are and what the world looks like from their point of view.

Memoir writing is a powerful Step for anyone who wants to grow more resilient to face those things over which they have no control. As you write, you transform the past from a collection of memories into a path that goes from sin to redemption, from tragedy to grieving, from one step to the next step and the next. Stories are large enough to contain great mistakes and even evil, and their power goes beyond the individual. Through reading and writing, our stories intertwine, healing ourselves and our relationships, and leaving behind a map that can help others find their own way through the journey of life.

To listen to the podcast version click the player control below.
You can also download the podcast from iTunes:
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Mothers and Daughters Don’t Always Mix

by Jerry Waxler

Linda Joy Myers’ mother wanted to have fun, so she abandoned her little girl and moved from the Great Plains to the big city of Chicago. Linda Joy was raised by her grandmother, an erratic woman given to harsh rules enforced by rage. Linda Joy grew up with a heavy load of disheartening memories.

After years of therapy, trying to sort out her feelings about her self-involved and mentally abusive caregivers, she began to write it all down. That first attempt turned out to be the beginning of a long journey. She tried again and again, and with each iteration, her story became more readable and less toxic than the one before. It took fifteen years from her first attempt to the publication of her memoir, “Don’t Call Me Mother.”

This book demonstrates the power of persistence. By crafting the story until she got it right, Linda Joy Myers discovered amidst the wreckage of that little girl’s childhood an intact human being, complete with courage, confidence, and dreams. Storytelling transformed her heartbreaking childhood into one stage in a much longer saga. Her suffering and then her healing provide both a tragedy and an inspiration about the wisdom a human can achieve in one life time.

In the preface of “Don’t Call Me Mother” she says, “Wrestling with words and images, putting myself into the story as a character, in the first person, present tense, forced me to integrate the self that I was with the witness I have become. This memoir has given me a profound sense of completion with the past, and a wonderful freedom. As I healed through the writing of this book, it too has evolved into a love song… The women who had once been my curses — my eccentric, wild, emotion-wracked mother and grandmother-became my teachers.”

Click here for Linda Joy Myers’ home page:
Click here for the Amazon page for her book:

I joined the author on her healing journey
Even if she had not told me that writing the book helped her heal, I can feel it for myself. I join this little girl, cringing with her during Grandma’s rages, and feeling relieved when they go on their annual trip to visit great grandmother, her mother’s mother’s mother, the most stable figure in Linda Joy’s childhood. Looking for sighs of relief, of beauty and pride, I pour my heart into each moment of pleasure – her passion for cello playing; the encouragement of her music teacher; her first boy friend, a fellow musician; the wheat fields, like golden oceans, that offer a sense of unlimited space.

As she begins to plan for college I lean forward into the future with her, straining towards escape from her stifling childhood, and longing for the day when she will be old enough and balanced enough to write the book I hold in my hands. Imagining that day converts horror to hope, knowing that the little girl grew up to write this story.

Breaking the code of silence

In addition to rejection by her mother and erratic and often abusive behavior of her grandmother, Linda Joy also fended off inappropriate sexual advances from her father during his annual visit. The people who gave her life used their power to confuse and undermine her. And like most abused kids, she learned the code of silence.

I have heard many people in memoir workshops struggle with such memories, explaining, “I wouldn’t want to talk about my family in that way. It would be disrespectful.” Their reticence followed them into adulthood and continues to foster their shame.

Linda Joy’s mastery over her secrets, provides an inspiring example for any writer who longs to create a whole story from disturbing raw material. Such a journey towards openness takes you across treacherous internal terrain, overcoming the fears and confusion that have always protected these secrets.  Then, you face additional challenges from people who don’t want to hear about child abuse. “Who wants to know things like that?” “That can’t be true.” “You’re exaggerating.” “You’re making excuses.” Only gradually do the walls of shame and secrecy break down. Through experimentation, the stories make sense, expose wounds, let in light, and integrate the past in one continuous whole that brings you to a healthier present and increases your enthusiasm for the future.

The reader and writer look for common ground

When you pick up a book, any book, you naturally ask yourself, “Why should I share my time and energy walking in this author’s shoes on this particular journey?” Of course, all readable books contain some crucial elements. They use polished prose, create dramatic tension, and then successfully resolve that tension. “Don’t Call Me Mother” succeeds in all these standard areas. In addition to generic qualities, each book has particular virtues. For me, the virtue of “Don’t Call Me Mother” is that through the magic of storytelling she brings her childhood to life, and then transforms it in front of my eyes. I share the story of her abuse, and then as she grows, I share the triumph of her eventual self-understanding.

The writer also asks questions. “How do I find and please my audience?” Another way to ask this question is “Who will want to read my book, and why?” The writer’s questions turn out to be mirrors of the ones asked by readers. When the writer’s answer matches the reader’s, two people who have never met are ready to spend hours in each other’s company.

Writing Prompt
Discovering why someone will read your story becomes part your quest as you try to open your life to the reading public. Describe the person who will read your book, and what questions or curiosities would your book address?

Another question, perhaps less obvious but just as important is, “Who will not want to read this book?” Since most of us would like to be loved by everyone, it might be hard to admit that not everyone is going to become a fan. By working out in advance who is not going to be one of your readers, you can focus more on pleasing the people who like you and letting the others read some other book.

Out of triumph, the desire to help others
In addition to helping herself, Linda Joy’s passion for finding the story of her own life has evolved into a passion to help others do the same. She offers individual counseling in the Berkeley area, teaches workshops, and has founded The National Association of Memoir Writers, an internet organization, that brings memoir writers together, and offers instruction and programs to help people take the journey of developing their own memoir.

For many years, Linda Joy dropped the “Joy” from her name, feeling it didn’t accurately reflect her character. Recently she has reintroduced it, choosing to allow the quality of happiness back into her name. While her memoir contains many deep and painful moments, her book reminds me of John Kennedy who said, “The ancient Greek definition of happiness was the full use of your powers along lines of excellence.” According to this definition, Linda Joy’s life offers all of us cause for joyful celebration.

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You can also download the podcast from iTunes:
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